In case you thought Hamilton had solved the chronic whiteness of New York theater, it hasn’t; Broadway and off-Broadway remain largely pale. And while every season brings some diversity onstage and behind the scenes, artists of color struggle to tell their stories. Even critical or commercial hits such as The Color Purple, Passing Strange, Fela!, The Scottsboro Boys, and last year’s Shuffle Along can feel like exceptions to the rule.
Audiences will get a glimpse of a more colorful show still waiting for its shot on the Great White Way at New York City Center this month: Kirsten Childs’s The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin, an irreverent musical about an aspiring Broadway dancer who gets wise to racial inequalities in society and show business. The musical, which had its world premiere in 2000 at Playwrights Horizons, is the latest offering from Encores! Off-Center, a performance series that provides a second look at great but neglected works. Nikki M. James (Tony winner for The Book of Mormon) takes on the title role in a production staged by Robert O’Hara.
Childs spotted a perfect collaborator in O’Hara when she first saw his raucous, profane satire Bootycandy (also at Playwrights Horizons). “I knew he would get my sensibility,” she says. “We both work from a place of humor and outrage. So you can’t imagine the joy I felt when he said he’d like to work with me. Personality-wise, he’s the straight-no-chaser to my bubbly.”
Bubbly follows Viveca, who lives in white suburban Los Angeles in the 1960s. Young and, yes, effervescent, Viveca absorbs or tries to ignore the racial prejudices around her: She confides her hope of growing up to be a white princess to Chitty Chatty, a white doll. In dance class, she’s passed over for a leading role in favor of a lighter-skinned peer. She sees police racially profile a neighbor. Even when our heroine gets to New York, a Bob Fosse–type director instructs her to act blacker. For all the insults and disillusionment, Viveca fights to maintain joy and dignity against an eclectic score that riffs on R&B, Motown, Rodgers & Hammerstein, and other popular idioms.
For all its cartoonish humor, Bubbly has a deep vein of anger, which Childs assures me has not lessened with time, thanks to racially motivated shootings and police violence, not to mention the president’s obsessive attempts to roll back the Obama legacy. I ask Childs if she thinks all this makes her musical relevant again. She bristles at the assumption underneath my query. “Bubbly isn’t urgent and necessary again,” she responds. “The issues in the show have been there, in some form or another, since some folks in this country said, ‘Black people are now free,’ and other folks said, ‘Not if I can help it.’ One of my two fervent wishes for Bubbly is that the show become an antiquated period piece on the subject of race. The other is that the Bubbly CD wins a Grammy. But enough of impossible dreams.”
And what about a sequel? Has Childs ever considered writing a follow-up to see how Viveca’s life and career have blossomed in the past 20 years? “Whatever obstacles my life has contained since that time, they’re just not as internally damaging or as life-saving and as uplifting as was my bubbly blackness,” she admits. “Frankly, I don’t think anyone would be as interested in seeing the musical The Woman Who Used to Be a Bubbly Black Girl But Will No Longer Put Up With Anyone’s Shit. But who knows?”
Why You Should Go: Are you a fan of Insecure and Dear White People? Try this cult-favorite musical, a hard and hilarious look at race through a young girl’s eyes.
Encores! Off-Center: The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin
New York City Center
155 West 55th Street (between Sixth and Seventh Avenues), Midtown
Wednesday, July 26, and Thursday, July 27
You’ll want to spend the day in midtown when art, wine, and a little bit of theater are involved.